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Hou Yifan Crowned Women’s World Champion: GM Rogers on Taizhou Print E-mail
By GM Ian Rogers   
September 23, 2013
Hou Yifan, Photo Cathy Rogers
The news arrived moments before Cathy and I boarded our flight to Shanghai. Hou Yifan had won the seventh game of her Women's World Championship match to regain the title from reigning Champion Anna Ushenina in Taizhou, 5.5-1.5.

Our plan to see the final three games of the title match in China was looking rather pointless. The $300 cab ride booked from Shanghai to Taizhou in order to be sure to be present for the start of the eighth game seemed a little profligate, to say the least.

Fortunately, although reports on or photos of the actual games might be lacking, I decided that a few set-backs was not going to stop CLO's top investigative journalist from discovering the truth about the title match. Were rumors about the poor treatment of Ushenina - bad food and late night phone calls -  spread by forum post and tweet, and amplified into conspiracy theories, correct? Could the Chinese tactics really be as devious as Tallinn 1985, when my room radio would mysteriously turn on at full blast at 3am the night before I was to play a Soviet player, and no method short of a visit to reception would turn it off? This reporter was going to find out.

At the end of the long taxi ride, from the metropolis of Shanghai to the tiny city of Taizhou (population just 5 million), we alighted in the lavish grounds of the Taizhou Hotel, full of marble, gold leaf and chandeliers. We were greeted by an inspiring notice at the front of the lobby – Organise the Chess Match Well, Exchange With the Chess Colleagues, Display the Local Culture and Construct the Well-know City.

Ushered directly to the dining room for lunch, we could observe Hou Yifan laughing with a table of supporters and Ushenina, wielding chopsticks like a pro, with her GM seconds Alexander Khalifman and Anton Korobov.

Lunch was a magnificent Chinese buffet, full of exotic dishes and a chef to cook a soup with the noodles for which Jiangsu province was famous. I approached Khalifman near the salad zone to greet him and ask for an interview with Ushenina. “Look at this,” he said, waving at the food. “This food is anything but European.” He was right. Apart from the salad, fruit, bread, cakes, french fries and broccoli, every meat dish was Chinese style.

Anna Ushenina in Taizhou
Ushenina declined an interview request but Khalifman made himself available to talk immediately after lunch. I had read Khalifman's comments on a Russian bulletin board and was prepared with the hard questions – this would be Frost/Nixon Mark II, blowing open the true reasons behind Hou's comprehensive victory over Ushenina.

Khalifman seemed more than ready to spill the beans as we sat down, but then he started...

“Hou Yifan played very well in this match; she was very well prepared. In general the score speaks for itself, a very convincing victory for Hou Yifan though in complicated strategical positions where there are no direct tactics, Anna is not worse. Opening preparation wasn't the point, the match was decided in general play.”

Yes, but what was the real reason Ushenina lost so heavily?

“Time trouble was in my opinion the decisive factor in this match. There was permanent time trouble for Anna and many mistakes in this time trouble. It was my mistake not to think about this before the match but I did not imagine it would be such a problem. Maybe it was tension.”

Sure, but what about Hou's home town advantage?

“Playing in China is really a certain handicap, one has to admit it. Everything is different – different climate, different time zone – everything. But this handicap is a given – not something we can change or the organizers could change.”

But the other problems? During negotiations prior to the match the organizers had agreed to provide European food and serve breakfast until 10.30.

“There were many small problems and Anna was feeling uncomfortable because of them. When we came here they told us that there is a problem – our cooks don't know how to cook European food. Maybe after Anna agreed to play in China it would be clever for her to insist on Beijing or Shanghai. It would be a relatively better situation. These small things just increased this handicap, though I should say again, I do not think that this affected the result. Hou Yifan deservedly won.

“The arguments over breakfast time were really unpleasant. We spoke with the match supervisor [FIDE Deputy-President] Mr Yazici about breakfast time before game 1 but only after my remarks were published over the whole internet, they extended breakfast from 9.30 until 10.30. Why could they not do it before?”

Before I could ask if the supermarket down the road with European and Mexican food might have provided the solution, Khalifman continued..

“Let's not talk about conspiracies. Maybe it is a sign that China is not a perfect place; it was anything but friendly treatment. This event was not organized according to its status.”

Finally we had reached the nub of the matter – the home ground advantage that I had read so much about from a distance. Yet when Khalifman came to explain why  Ushenina lost so heavily to Hou, these  issues provided peripheral.

“It seems that we did not prepare long enough with Anna - there were many small details where the preparation was not quite [right]. There was the factor of lacking match experience.

The really decisive moment was in game 5. If Anna played 21...Rbxh4 I am completely sure she will win this game. Even in this case the chances for Hou Yifan to win the match would still be preferable but there would be a fight at least. That it did not happen is such a pity.”

Taizhou World Championship Game 5


Opening: Sicilian Najdorf

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 e6 7.g4 h6 8.h4 Nc6 9.Nxc6

The latest fashion, even though the idea was first tried by Gilberto Milos 18 years ago. 9.Rg1 would be standard.
9...bxc6 10.Qf3 h5

As played in the original Milos-Sunye game. 10...Rb8 11.0–0–0 Qa5 has also been tried but after 12.Bc4, White's king will be safer than Black's.
11.gxh5 Nxh5 12.0–0–0 Rb8 13.Bc4 Qf6!
Original and effective.
14.Qg2 Nf4 15.Qg5
15.Qg3 e5 offers White nothing, so Hou looks for an endgame, slightly better than the one she could have had two moves earlier.
15...e5! 16.Qxf6 gxf6 17.Bxf4 exf4 18.Ne2 Rb4 19.Bd3 f5! 20.exf5 f3 21.Nc3?!


21.Ng1 was necessary but "I thought I would be worse after 21...Rbxh4 22.Rxh4 Rxh4 23.Nxf3 Rf4 ," said Hou.

21...Rbxh4 22.Rxh4 Rxh4 was simple and strong. After 23.Be4 d5 24.Bxf3 Bxf5 Black's bishops will rule the board.
22.Kb1 d5 23.a3 Rf4 24.Rde1+ Kd8 25.Nd1!

Just in time the White knight finds a useful square, Black now tries to keep chances alive but with White's extra h pawn always a threat she must tread carefully.
25...a5 26.Ne3 Rg8 27.h5 Bd7 28.Reg1 Rxg1+ 29.Rxg1 Rh4 30.Ng4 Rxh5 31.Ne5!


Eliminating the light-squared bishop, after which a draw could be agreed at any time.
31...Be8?! 32.Rg8 Ke7 33.f6+ is certainly not a winning try.
32.Nxd7 Kxd7 33.Rg3 Rh2 34.Rxf3 Bg5 35.Ka2 Bh4 36.Kb3 Bxf2 37.Ka4 Bb6 38.b4 axb4 39.axb4 Kd6 40.Rg3 Rh1 41.c3 Bf2 42.Rf3 Rh2 43.Kb3 Ke5 44.Bc2 Kd6 45.Bd3 Kd7 46.Bc2 Rg2 47.Rd3 Rg4 48.b5 Rf4 49.bxc6+ Kxc6 50.Rd1 Rf3 51.Bd3 Bg3 52.Kc2 Kc5 53.Rf1 Re3 54.Ra1 Be5 55.Ra5+ Kc6 56.Ra6+ Kc5 57.Ra5+ Kc6 58.Ra6+ Kc5 59.Ra5+ Kc6 60.Ra6+ Kc5 61.Ra5+

What was I to make of this? Instead of discovering a scandal I met a philosophical second who - despite being annoyed at having to make frequent complaints to FIDE's match coordinator to have the match contract enforced, who undoubtedly believed that the organizers were keen for Hou to win and who wished that Ushenina's team had brought either a manager or a chef, or both – attributed Hou's win entirely to chess factors.

The next day I decided to conduct another in-depth interview. After all, there were no chess games going on. So on Sunday morning, after a Chinese breakfast buffet which included coffee, eggs cooked on request, fruit, toast and jam, I sat down to quiz the new Women's World Champion. What did Hou Yifan think of Ushenina's complaints about the food?

Hou Yifan and Ian Rogers, Photo Cathy Rogers

“For me where I play is not a big deal but here [in my home prefecture] I can be more comfortable with the food and the location, the environment. The conditions were very nice.
For Anna it was different – just like when we go to Europe. The Chinese food in Europe is not traditional – they try to suit the European taste. In a big European city it is less of a problem.”

Over the next half hour I learned plenty: about Hou's study plans – International Relations professors don't always appreciate her taking time off for chess, and her celebrations with juice rather than alcohol. (One of my first trainers accompanying me to an international junior tournament told me, as he downed a pint of lager, that you lose 5,000 brain cells with every glass of beer. Perhaps Hou, who could legally drink alcohol from last year, had a similarly convincing trainer.) Above all Hou was happy to have won, especially at home, and thanked supporters from around the world for their messages of encouragement.

Perhaps my bias in favor of Chinese food has got the better of me, but being in Taizhou for the wash-up of the world title match has been far from the letdown I expected. The venerable Taizhou Hotel seemed like an excellent venue for a world title match, with the most serious criticism I heard being the game transmission problems on the first day. Chess sponsorship in China nowadays sadly no longer includes acrobats and musicians at opening and closing ceremonies but a modest closing ceremony is no crime, especially when preceded by an excursion to the wetland within the Qinhu National Park.

If the match in Taizhou proved one thing, apart from the fact a match between Hou Yifan and Judit Polgar would be fascinating, it is that FIDE know how to put their foot in it even when they are presiding over a triumph.

As evidence, the closing speech by Jorge Vega, in the absence of FIDE President Kirsan Iljumzhinov which included the lines, apparently in praise of the players, “It is said that women fight more than men. Anyone who is married can confirm this.” Maybe the translator spoiled the punchline, but none of the 150 guests at the closing ceremony laughed.

GM Rogers latest piece for CLO was on the Sinquefield Cup.